Hounded by years of persecution upon England’s grouse moors, Peregrines find a safe refuge in our Cities

For years, only the most intrepid birdwatcher could catch a glimpse of one of the world’s fastest avian raptors, the peregrine falcon, along our sea cliffs, quarries or perched on the crags of  Britain’s remote upland moorlands and mountains.

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But now this regal iconic raptor is returning to Britain’s cities in droves, with more pairs spotted in our capital this year than for centuries before.

The blue-grey falcon, with its yellow feet and black facial cheek malar stripe,can travel at speeds in excess of 200mph when stooping for its prey – mainly pigeons – placing it at the top of the avian food chain. Driven out of urban centres over the past 100 years, it is now back and nesting at spots such as London’s Tate Modern, Manchester’s Arndale centre and at Durham and Chichester Cathedrals.

The number of peregrines in the UK has increased more than fourfold since the 1960s when the population was devastated by the effects of organochlorine pesticide, resulting in thinner egg shells reducing their numbers to  less than a few hundred pairs. There are now thought to be at least 1,500 pairs across the country, 24 of which live in London – the highest number recorded in the city for hundreds of years.

Paul Stancliffe, a bird specialist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “Since the banning of certain pesticides, the peregrines have bounced back. More and more are spreading out looking for new territories.

“They favour places with abundant food that are inaccessible to other predators. As those prime territories get taken up, young birds look for new spaces – buildings in cities and towns provide perfect cliff-like locations.” In parts of the Lake District National Park, eyries are being located just a half mile apart, leading to saturation densities.

In what is being hailed as one of nature’s “success stories”, two of the peregrines that have recolonised London – the city’s population has gone from zero to almost capacity in a decade – can now be seen perching on the chimney of Tate Modern.

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Visitors to the river front have been taken by surprise by the sight of Misty and Houdini, two 11-year-old falcons, and their two offspring flying over the Thames, only to see them come to rest on a ledge of one of the world’s most famous art galleries. However, since peregrines are fiercely territorial and mate for life, the pair are fast becoming the Tate’s most loyal visitors.

Lyndon Parker, senior events officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has been monitoring the pair for the past six years. He said: “It is incredible that people in the city get a chance to see these completely wild birds. People think we have introduced them, or that they aren’t real. But we haven’t, and they are. They are not ringed and we have no idea where they came from, but we are trying to show people there is amazing wildlife even in urban areas.”

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While peregrines are returning to Britain’s cities, experts said the illegal persecution of the birds by gamekeepers in rural areas is still a cause for “major concern”. People living in central Manchester now have a better chance of seeing peregrines than those in certain areas of the Peak District, where the birds frequently fall victim to persecution to protect grouse shooting. In Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland this year catastrophe struck. Of the 19 occupied territories being monitored by the North West Raptor Protection Group, only 6 were productive resulting in a 74% failure setting a precedent for the last 35 years. Between 1990 and 2009, there were 141 convictions relating to bird of prey persecution, with 98 individuals having game-bird interests.

There is also the issue of nest robberies by egg collectors and the destruction of eggs, young chicks by pigeon fanciers. It also appears wild peregrines are once again in demand for falconry. Last year, a man was arrested as he prepared to board a plane at Birmingham airport bound for Dubai: he had 14 peregrine falcon eggs concealed in his socks and bandaged to his body. According to the RSPB, there were 26 confirmed or probable peregrine nest robberies in 2009, the last year for which figures are available.

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The Government added the bird to its UK wildlife crime priority list in February this year. Jeff Knott, species policy officer at the RSPB, said: “We welcome that move, but we would like to see the Government release an actual plan of action to reduce persecution. We don’t want anyone denied the opportunity to see the fastest bird in the world.”

8 comments to Hounded by years of persecution upon England’s grouse moors, Peregrines find a safe refuge in our Cities

  • paul williams

    If the government have added the Peregrine Falcon to its wildlife crime priority list…why did the government agency (Natural England) take away the Peregrines Falcons protection in the Forest of Bowland by revoking licenses which had been previously held by members of the North West Raptor Protection Group for well over three decades?

  • che

    The government did have an action plan in February this year, take away the licenses, take away protection, remove the Peregrine. Is it me or is this the real truth of what has taken place!

    • Pat Young

      Message to gamehawker, Your idea of “getting them off our moorlands” will simply never happen, it’s merely pie in the sky ideology. These people represent the establishment and are far too powerful to be stopped. Another unfortunate fact, a huge majority of the British people today have other more important things on their minds to care about the damage these individuals are doing to the biodiversity of England’s moorlands; they probably care even less about the persecution of birds of prey when facing rising unemployment, rising utility bills and wondering how they can afford to buy a few litres of fuel to put in their cars.

      Let’s face it when the Chief Executive of such an important government organisation as Natural England pays such glowing tributes to gamekeepers for their sterling work maintaining the biodiversity of our moorlands, what chance do raptors have? No doubt she feels telling a few lies to promote political relationships with the owners of shooting estates and their employees is more important to Natural England’s image than the conservation of raptors. Look what happened to the local Bowland raptor group for trying their best to protect raptors in the region, Natural England removed their licenses resulting in the failure of 74% of all peregrine territories in the region this year. One last thought, on top of every thing else, Dr Phillips must also be concerned about losing her job too like many more of her colleagues.

  • Coop

    Hello Pat, have another look at that thread and you’ll realise that it’s me that wants our natural heritage freed from the abuses of the bloodsports industry; not the aptly named “gamehawker”. For some reason, he/she felt it necessary to include my complete post in their own. But then, the CA and its apologists are extremely defensive, and easy to wind up.

  • pedro

    I’ve never read as much crap about their only being 1500 pairs in the country they are everywhere now

    • Admin

      Pedro, we presume you are not from South America? These figures are the official ones that everyone seems to go by these days. At least we can confirm to you that what ever the true figure is, because of the disapperance at least 10 breeding pairs in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland this year, the number of breeding pairs that may have existed have now been reduced by 10.

  • Mike Price

    Pedro you missed a few words off the end of your statement, but don’t worry I have corrected it for you below.

    “they are everywhere now, except for areas that are concerned with the shooting of Red Grouse”.

  • Marilyn

    Hello, have found this thread whilst looking for the bird that was on my garden wall this morning. I am positive it was one of these peregrine falcons, the tail feathers were so distinctive. I live in bideford, devon.